When a group of friends hike the Inca Trail high atop Peru, they encounter snow-covered peaks, rain forest jungles and their own hidden strength.
There was nowhere to go but up, unfortunately. I was standing on the Inca Trail, the legendary 43-kilometer trek that winds through the Peruvian Andes from the shores of the Urubamba River all the way to the ruins of Machu Picchu. A few of our guides run the roller-coaster route every year in under four hours. We were on the second afternoon of a journey that would take us four days.
My group of eight women friends was within sight of Dead Woman’s Pass, which at almost 14,000 feet is the highest point of this centuries-old pilgrimage. It had poured through lunch, and I was sweating so much under my rain gear I could have sprouted a terrarium. The landscape had switched from a cloud forest rich with overhanging trees, wild begonias and bromeliads to open skies and puna, a grass that grows in ragged clumps. When I looked up, waterfalls spurted out of the sides of cliffs. Below, llamas grazed in the valley.
It was breathtaking, and like nothing I’d ever seen. Though my brain told me to stop and take it all in, I couldn’t help thinking of what my friend, Wendy, announced five minutes after we first stepped onto the trail the day before.
“I hate hiking,” she’d shouted to the group.
It was an interesting admission, given that the trip was her idea.
At this moment, I pretty much hated hiking, too. The altitude on the Inca Trail is daunting for someone who, like me, lives near sea level. But I’m also allergic to Diamox, a prescription medication that prevents mountain sickness. I’d heard stories of hikers throwing up, fainting and being so disoriented from oxygen deprivation that they raged at their companions. In extreme cases, it can be fatal.
Against a sky that looked as dense as a gray flannel blanket, I could see an opening between two mountains. It was certainly the pass, but I knew from checking my watch that it was at least an hour away. So I stuffed another wad of coca leaves — said to ease altitude-related symptoms — between my lip and gum.
And then I burned up the trail with only one goal in mind: get done. If Fredy, our wise and tenderhearted guide, had been anywhere near me, I’m sure he would have put his hand on my shoulder and cautioned me to slow down.
The most extensive road system in pre-Columbian South America, the Inca Trail probably was built as both a transit network and pilgrimage to sacred mountain shrines. Today, hikers walk on the same stones the Incas laid. It’s a mind-boggling display of human ingenuity and engineering, with paths made of stones fitted together like pieces of a 3-D puzzle.
The trail was made known to the western world in the early part of the 20th century, when American explorer Hiram Bingham and his team were studying Machu Picchu. Ever since then, this remote pocket of Peru has been a mainstay of those “100 Things to Do Before You Die” lists. And for good reason. Where else in the world can you experience jungle, snow-capped mountains and centuries-old ruins in a single afternoon?
For decades, the trail was crowded and strewn with trash. Porters, many of them native Quechua from villages surrounding Cuzco and the Sacred Valley, were treated abominably — paid rock bottom wages for labor that was literally backbreaking. It was so awful that Fredy quit guiding the trail because he couldn’t stand to be part of such an abusive enterprise.
Today, the Peruvian government has taken steps to preserve this world treasure and improve the working conditions of those who make it possible for amateur hikers like my friends and me to enjoy it. Only 500 people are allowed onto the trail each day, and each group must travel with a guide who is licensed by the government. The Porter Law, which was passed in 2003 and is followed by ethical outfitters, sets strict weight limits and minimum wages.
We worked with Enigma, a locally owned adventure travel company that partners with agencies including Orient Express and Abercrombie & Kent. It was an experience that can only be described as glamping — and then some. Sure we slept in sleeping bags, but you could hardly call being greeted with a celebratory pisco sour at the day’s end roughing it. Our tents were always pitched by the time we arrived at the next campsite. Coffee was delivered first thing in the morning to our tents, as were warm bowls of water and bars of biodegradable soap.
When everyone in our group made it to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, we raised our poles, posed for photos and cheered. It was covered in fog, so it was hard to make out any landmarks, including how the cliffs look like the profile of woman lying on her back. But the worst was over. It was time to enjoy the experience.
Or not. No more than 30 minutes into our descent, I felt like I was looking through glasses with the wrong prescription. I stumbled and fell on the stairs, now slippery with rain. When Wendy tried to distract me by pointing to some flowers, I could barely operate my camera.
When I arrived at the campsite, Fredy told me to go into my tent and rest. He assured me I’d be OK, but I was so nauseous that I couldn’t imagine joining the others in the dining tent. When I told him there was a light band of pressure around my head, he waved to one of the porters to bring an oxygen mask.